An Interview with Rachel Klima

Meet one of Dawn's research assistants, Rachel Klima.
The following interview is a written interview conducted by the Outreach team at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
Dawn research assistant, Rachel Klima

Where do you work? And, what do you find most interesting about working there ?

RK: I currently work at Brown University. Brown is involved with a lot of space missions that involve international collaboration, which is both interesting and a lot of fun.

What is your role in the Dawn mission?

RK: I am a collaborator on the Dawn Science Team, working to help prepare for mapping and interpreting the mineralogy of the surface of Vesta. I am working with the Science team and not part of a specific instrument team.

What is your everyday work life like?

RK: I spend part of the day analyzing spectral data from ongoing missions to evaluate the mineral composition of other planets (right now I am working on a lunar mission). Part of many days is spent working in the lab studying and measuring meteorite samples. I teach one day a week and spend several hours a week writing up the results of my research.

What are some of the challenges that accompany your job with the Dawn mission?

RK: One of the biggest challenges with Dawn is that we’re going to two totally unexplored bodies in the solar system. This is extremely exciting, but for now we can only look at our experiences with other asteroids and other airless bodies to try to prepare ourselves for what we will find there. I’m sure once we actually arrive we will be completely surprised, no matter how well prepared we thought we were!

Can you share one of the unique aspects of the Dawn mission that fascinate you most?

RK: I am extremely interested in how planets form. One of the current ideas is that many planets spent some time in a mostly molten state, called a ‘magma ocean’. Evidence supports that our Moon was once a magma ocean, and some believe Mars and even Earth may have begun that way. Meteorites that we believe to be from Vesta suggest that it, too, may have once been a magma ocean. I look forward to getting to Vesta and trying to use the current surface mineralogy to test this hypothesis.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

RK: I went through a lot of phases through my childhood. I think the first career I wanted was to be an astronaut. I loved watching the stars and meteor showers with my dad, and was very interested in the planets. When I got a bit older I spent some time wanting to be a neurosurgeon, and then I wanted any job that would let me travel and explore the world. 

At what point did you determine that you would pursue a career in astronomy? Tell about the path that led you to this field.

RK: After some years in high school where I pretty much had one goal (to get out of highschool) I went to community college and fell back in love with science. I studied physics and geology in college and then in graduate school found out that you could combine a love of space with a love of rocks by working in planetary geology.

Who inspired you?

RK: My advisor through grad school and my postdoc at Brown, Carle Pieters, is a huge inspiration. At a young age, watching Carl Sagan and Cosmos really got me dreaming about outer space and the exciting questions out there. My parents were extremely supportive of my education and helped me explore science at an early age.

What was your favorite book as a child and why?

RK: A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. I think it’s a wonderful adventure and I really could relate to Meg since I have a little brother who was my best friend as a kid. I don’t know a short way to explain why I love that book—if you haven’t read it, you should, its fantastic!

What subjects were you interested in as a young student?

RK: I loved science in elementary school, particularly space science and playing with chemistry sets and growing minerals. In high school I enjoyed learning foreign languages and still enjoyed chemistry. 

What was your career path in high school and what classes did you take to help prepare for that path?

RK: Honestly, in high school I spent a lot of time discovering who I was as I matured into an adult. I was unsure what I wanted to do for a career—;at the time, I just really wanted something that would let me travel the world. Actually, thinking about it, I did always yearn to explore—;both Earth and worlds beyond. Some people may know what they want to do for the rest of their life when they're in high school, but I think many people don't, and its O.K.!

I had a very strong background in science from elementary school, and so I started off a couple of years ahead in high school science. I took advanced physics and chemistry (and loved them), but I also spent a lot of time exploring other things, including even jewelery making and ceramics. I was the kind of kid that didn't want to be told that you have to do X and Y if you want to succeed. For me, it took being in community college and knowing that my future was in my hands to really kick-start things. There, I took calculus, geology and astronomy (and had amazing teachers) and fell back in love with math and all types of physical science. In retrospect, I wish I had taken calculus a lot sooner, because that was really a turning point for me. As a kid I used to get so frustrated when I would ask why certain formulas were what they were, and get the answer 'they just are, now memorize them'.

Calculus explains everything so beautifully—;I don't understand why it's saved until last.

What advice would you give to aspiring engineers or scientists?

RK: Well, this is from my perspective—;I think you really have to find a career that you love and are passionate about. If you want to make money or rule the world there are better ways out there to do so. There are times when science is difficult or frustrating, but if you really are excited about the questions you’re asking, and the problems you’re solving, you’ll get through the rough times. When you do get frustrated, it helps to step back and think about the big picture, and how cool the things you’re working on really are. 

What are your leisure time activities?

RK: I love camping but haven’t done it in a while (I have a 1 year old baby so we’re waiting for him to get a little older to start him off on it). I like to bike and swim, but right now most of my free time is spent playing with my son. 

Do you have a yet-to-be-achieved life goal?

RK: I want to be a good mom while still being a good scientist. I’d like to have my own lab one day, perhaps.

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